Two young challengers seek to unseat Petaluma City Schools incumbents

Race comes at a time when the district finds itself at loggerheads with its teachers union over pay raises and the terms of contract negotiations themselves.|

Two young challengers are fighting three incumbents for a place on the Petaluma City Schools board, unusual competition in a race where seats often go uncontested.

Steven Cozza and Gonzalo Romo are campaigning on a promise of bringing greater diversity to the board and making the five-member body more accountable to teachers, students and the general public.

Incumbents Michael Baddeley, Sheri Chlebowski and Phoebe Ellis say they have served the district well in their first terms on the board and ushered in big changes that they’d like to see through, including nearly $90 million in bonds approved this summer, a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) that lays out the district’s spending priorities, and increased technology in classrooms.

The race comes at a time when the district finds itself at loggerheads with its teachers union over pay raises and the terms of contract negotiations themselves. The Petaluma Federation of Teachers has become highly involved in the race, endorsing the two challengers and walking precincts for them.

Cozza, a Realtor and former professional cyclist, said he’s running because a longtime interest in helping children and a desire to see changes such as improved communication.

“I have energy, I have creative ideas and experience with communication and problem solving, and I’m really looking forward to improving certain things on the board,” he said.

First on the list of things to improve is communication, he said. Teachers and community members tell him they don’t feel like they have an active say in changes at the district, he said, and he’d like to change that. Specifically, he wants to see board members meet regularly with all school committees and parent groups.

He suggested creating a newsletter to communicate what’s happening at board meetings and various schools around the district.

Cozza is not yet a parent, but said he and his wife plan to raise their children in the district. Also, he’s long dedicated time to helping kids, he said.

“Just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean I won’t be a good school board member,” he said. “It means I’ll have a different perspective. I’ll be unbiased toward a particular school.”

He’s also served on boards and understands what it takes to make them work better, he said.

“Part of it is having diversity on the board,” he said. “You can’t have all lawyers.” Baddeley, Ellis and Chlebowski are all lawyers by training.

Fellow challenger Romo also emphasized the importance of diversity on the board. A consultant with Petaluma Transit and Latino Service Providers, he graduated from Sonoma State University in May and is the youngest candidate at age 28. Cozza is 29.

He said he became involved in educational issues about two years ago when he was entertaining the idea of becoming a teacher and started attending meetings related to the LCAP, which he described as “one of the most important documents schools have had to implement in the last couple decades” because it will dictate how funds are spent and what areas will become focal points for schools.

As he learned and got involved, community members encouraged him to run for the board, he said.

As a Chicano/Latino studies major, he says he is well-equipped to reach out to under-represented community members, including Latinos. He and Cozza have both English and Spanish campaign material on their websites.

“This board has a narrow perspective which limits their ability to reach out to the entire community,” he said. “I want to ensure that the sector of the community I have access to is participating in the process.”

If elected, he says, he would focus on shrinking the achievement gap for Latino and low-income students. He’d also focus on increasing the number of students taking college-track classes, improving vocational track options, bettering communication between the district and the community and accelerating the time it takes for English learners to go from remedial to standard English courses.

Baddeley, a local attorney and parent of four children, is running for re-election after serving just over four years. He was first appointed to fill a vacancy in the spring of 2010, then was elected to a four-year term that fall.

He said he’s proud the district was able to weather the recession while maintaining one of the highest graduation rates in the county. He’s also proud that the board successfully passed a bond measure this June before it had to compete with other taxes on the November ballot.

He wants to stay on the board to see that the money is spent “the way we intended, on technology, capital improvements and facilities.”

He said his experience as a lawyer and on various community boards makes him an asset as the district continues to work on its new LCAP spending plan.

“A group that isn’t divisive, that works together toward bettering educational opportunities for students,” he said. “That’s my agenda.”

He, Chlebowski and Ellis, all lawyers by training, are running together. “I think we really work well together,” he said. “The board is very high-functioning, well-educated and collaborative.”

Chlebowski is running for re-election after serving her first term on the board. She has three children, all at Grant Elementary. A former BART police officer and lawyer, she is now a full-time parent. She’s been heavily involved with student and parent issues through her involvement with groups including the Petaluma Mother’s Club, a preschool at Elim Lutheran Church, and the group Moms for Clean Air, which opposed the approval of an asphalt plant across from Shollenberger Park.

She first ran for the board at the prompting of parents and teachers.

While Romo and Cozza raised concerns about the district’s communication efforts, she said she has invested a large amount of time in getting familiar with district policies and finances as well as communicating with parents, teachers and principals.

She said she has focused on getting out to schools and soliciting feedback.

“I’ve had principals say that they never had a board member do this, take?the time to be inquisitive,” she said.

In the next four years, she’d like to figure out a way to reach even more parents and teachers, she said.

Ellis has been on the board since last June, when she was appointed to fill a void left by Carolyn Tennyson, who resigned.

She has three children, one in high school, another in middle school and the last in elementary school. That, she said, gives her a broad perspective on the school system.

She has been involved with the schools for years through PTA and other parent groups; she works for her parents’ business Lace House Linen.

“I feel I’m in touch with parents and teachers and the activities going on at various schools,” she said.

She said she’s running for re-election because “we’ve started a lot of major projects and I want to see them through, work through the glitches.”

That includes a new initiative to give each eighth-grader a Chromebook and focus on more digital learning, which got off to a rocky start with technology glitches and teachers saying they hadn’t had proper training.

Through that process, she saw that the district needs to work on communication, she said, acknowledging the concerns that others have raised.

“Sometimes someone makes a decision and it’s not communicated to all the people involved,” she said. “It’s something we can improve upon and that we’re certainly working on.”

An issue that has loomed over the election is a stalemate between the district and its teachers union over the size of pay raises that has dragged on since this summer.

Baddeley, Ellis and Chlebowski said they want the two sides to resume negotiating and they’d like teachers to get cost of living adjustment they’re currently seeking. But, they say, doing so would require putting the district in a perilous financial position.

Ellis said the board has been holding lots of closed-session meetings to try to resolve the issue. “We’re definitely listening,” she said. “I want to get back to the table.”

She added, “It’s a balancing job, that’s what we’re working on every day. The budget changes every day.”

Cozza and Romo acknowledged that the district was emerging from tough financial times but said they thought board members could better prioritize teacher raises.

“I feel teachers have been kept on the bottom of the totem pole in terms of priorities for so long,” Cozza said. “When you put teachers on the bottom of the list, you start losing them to other districts.”

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